Sunday, August 09, 2009

History and the Four-Fold Senses of Scripture- Joshua Revisited

It has been a while since I've written, I know, but haven't been able to do so what with moving into our first house, the packing and unpacking and the inevitable long list of errands to get done. It, also, didn't help that it took just over a week to get the Internet hooked up. So, that is by way of excuse for my silence over the last few weeks.

Now that I'm back, I thought the most helpful thing I could do would be to revisit the Joshua discussion that we were having last July. In that post, I attempted to apply the four-fold sense of scripture to Joshua 1-7; a passage which I had read recently and which struck me could benefit from this exegetical approach. In the course of the discussion which followed, a regular commenter, Jim, suggested that the anagogical level of the exegesis ran the risk of becoming eisegesis- that is, could be seen as reading in meaning, not extracting it from the passage. I countered with a suggestion that it was on this level that the the different readings of the OT by Jews and Christians becomes much more prominent as well as agreeing on the importance of reading the OT. Maureen (also, a regular) defended the anagogical level of exegesis by suggesting that it was implicit in the way that biblical writers wrote. Here is the link to that post for those of you who may have missed it and want to see the full discussion.

In thinking about this exchange, I did want to add a few things in retrospect.

Firstly, I don't think I made it clear that, strictly speaking, what I was attempting to do was more typology than allegory. Now, that isn't that big a deal, I grant, as typology is a species of allegory- the difference being that typology is rooted historically because the types are drawn from the history of Israel and linked to later events, usually in Jesus' lifetime. Thus, the earlier event is seen as predicting and preparing the way for the much more significant later event. Thus, the blood of the lamb in Passover is a type of Jesus' blood shed on the cross or Moses extending his arms during the battle against the Amalkites (Exodus 17, 8-15) is a type of Jesus on the cross. The type is, in this sense, a dim reflection of the later event which is, usually, associated with the life of Christ. However, there is a contextual similarity. In the context of the blood of lamb type, the contextual similarity which seems meant is that of sacrifice through blood leading to salvation (of Israel and of the world). In the context of the Moses example, it is that of suffering leading to victory (again, Israel against the real threat of the Amalkites in the first case and people (especially of God) against the forces of evil in the world).

The distinguishing mark between typology and allegory is that typology relies on history rather more than allegory. Allegory is, ultimately, ahistorical, while typology keeps a two-fold sense to history- the event itself is what it is, but it has a hidden significance which only comes to light later, after the coming of Jesus. This, I think, connects to my point about reading the OT in Christian eyes because the type can only be detected in retrospect, when the event it connects to, actually happens. In this case, this is the life of Christ.

A second and more important point in this connection is that my discussion of the typology in Joshua was, in fact, incomplete. I think there is a modified typology between Exodus and Joshua, as I argued, but I didn't try to extend that to what I think the real referent is- Jesus. The fact that the Exodus story was widely considered a type for Jesus and his relationship with the Church (as Israel) suggests that such a connection is essential for understanding this passage and may explain why Jim protested the anagogical level as much as he did as it did kind of come from nowhere. However, if we see in the Exodus story and the wanderings of the Jews in the wilderness as a type of the Church's sojourn in the world, the types will make better sense in a Christian interpretation. I think I've made the link to the Passover story more explicit, so the Rahab story may be considered a secondary type because the red string is intended to recall the blood of the lamb which is, as we observed above, is a type of Jesus' blood. So, the two OT stories share the same typological referent- Jesus' blood and its saving power. This would hold true of the crossing of the Jordon and the crossing of the Red Sea as a type of baptism, especially previewed by Jesus. I'll have to think more on the other parallels, but I think you see where I'm going with this.

My last point is a rather more theological point and one that I think Jim may have problems with. Ultimately, Jim's concern about my anagogical exegesis will probably not be solved by the more full explanation of my allegorical method. I say this because the core of the concern is that I'm reading in meanings which are inconsistent to the meanings intended by the author and remembered by the community addressed by these writings. In a sense, he is right because central to my application of typology to this (or any text) is a suggestion that there is a layer of meaning which the original writers did not understand fully and which we, as Christians, do. That is, we are forced, as Christians, in light of Jesus' life and teaching, to read the Bible quite differently than the original Jewish writers and readers did. In that sense, we are committed to an eisegesis because we are, frankly, reading in the story of Christ into the story of Israel in the firm belief that the story of Israel was meant as a way of previewing and preparing for the salvation of story implicit in Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

So, this begs the question of which reading should we privilege and here we come to precisely where Jim and I are in disagreement. Jim rightly points out that the original intent of the text is more consistent with a Jewish/historical reading. While I agree that this is the original intent and we need to pay strict attention to it, I'm arguing that a second, hidden level of meaning which is deeply Christocentric is key to fully understanding the passage. I am, of course, opening a huge exegetical can of worms here because issues like who decides on a valid allegorical/typological meaning, what to do about the spectre of supersessionism implicit in patristic allegory/typology and what to do about history to name just a few issues before us. Yet, the promise of this kind of patristic reading to get us away from the narrow-minded literalism (in both its conservative and liberal incarnations) characteristic of the current series of church wars as well as help us to understand the OT more fully.

As always, comments and criticisms are welcome.



Jim said...

Welcome back!

I think you have identified the lense through which many have viewed the Hebrew Scriptures in the centuries since the resurrection. I have, as you anticipate, a few issues.

First, that way lies Christian Triumphalism. Second, we assign post facto God's purpose not only for the entire history of the Hebrew nation(s) but also of the Scripture.

So, does the Spirit leave these things for us to discover? The Spirit blows where she will and it is wrong for me to deny the possibility. But I see problems.

I am not saying the approach is wrong, merely that we need to be extremely careful with it and apply it sparingly.

I am inclined to say something like this.

When I read this part of Hebrew Scripture, with the informed experience of the resurrection and the lives and ministries of Jesus and the apostles in mind, I see the Spirit using the Hebrew experience in telling me Jesus's and therefor the Father's story.

That is I should prefer to think of the Spirit as a very good story teller, than as one hiding secrets.

Does that make any sense? I realize I am in some danger of missing a gift of the Spirit here, but I think it is safer ground.



Phil Snider said...

Hi Jim;

I knew that that hint of supersessionism was going to be an issue. And it is a totally understandible point to have reservations. After the experience of the Holocaust, Christians have rightly asked themselves twice or thrice how their attitude to the Jews contributed to the genocide in Europe. That has caused a reluctance to use the old exegesis of the OT because it implicitly claims the Jews are, at best, wrong or, at worst, faithless Christ-killers. I think you've known me long enough that I would reject any such return to Christian triumphalism.

Yet, I think we Christians have to live with the fact that, at the end of the day, Jews and Christians just aren't going to agree on some pretty key things, especially about Jesus. His Messiahship and his identity as Son of God is something that no Jew is going to agree with and we have to accept our disagreement here. I do believe that Jews are being faithful to our common God, and, given this disagreement, I can't see anything else they could do, but to continue practicing the Law as they have for millenia. I don't think they are necessarily damned for this because I believe that God has demonstrated in the OT that he will be faithful to his covenant with Israel no matter what. We can sort out the right and wrong of these issues in heaven.

That said, I also see no reason to change my manner of reading the OT, provided that I give a caveat similar to what you are suggesting- that is, in the perspective of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, this is what I see is happening in the OT. I do think that God is entirely capable of meaning both meanings (Jewish and Christian), but I don't know if we can, with a 100% certainty which is the right reading.

Does that help?


That said,

Rod said...

Thank you, Phil for this post. I came across this reading your blog. I am but a poor theologian so I am not into biblical studies, but your post did clear up for me the difference between typology and allegory.

Jim said...

Hi Phil,

Well yes for the record, I have no doubt that you are not the problem when I am concerned with triumphalism. Neither of us are anti-Semites nor is Christianity. That said, we do have to be on guard.

It occurs to me that I could just about echo your last paragraph. I do not see a reason to alter my way of reading the OT given the caveat that I could be underestimating the degree to which the Spirit moves in the story selection, actual events and telling. None the less, I am less inclined to see 'spiritual meaning' or foretelling in the Hebrew Scriptures and more willing to see epiphany moments for NT writers.

It also occurs to me that the communion might could learn from the simple fact that we can have these discussions without "Chicago Statements" anathemas, schisms and (praise Heaven!) covenants! Ah well, neither of us has a miter at stake!


Phil Snider said...


I understand about the aversion to 'spiritual' readings. To some degree, I share it, although my readings in patristics have made me more willing to entertain them. What I was trying to do with Joshua was experimental, but I think there is a way foward for this kind of approach, especially for those who may feel more artistically and poetically inclined that I am.

I take your point on the fact that we can discuss these issues. Really, our concept of bibical exegesis is so impoverished right now that we are currently watching the clash of two literalisms which explains the heat of the current battles. No enemy is quite so threatening as the one who we secretly resemble.

This is why I'm trying out these 'spiritual' readings because it is pulling us away from those literalisms and into deeper waters. That was a risky move in the days of the Fathers and it is possibly a crazy one now when there is even less agreement on how to decide on a valid reading. But I think we need to risk that to get back to reading the Bible as the mystically profound, theologically important and morally formational book it is.


Jim said...

It is interesting to me that the alternative you perceive in literalism. I don't think that I land up there. I think there is another way.

If I say the NT writers were inspired by the Spirit and the Hebrew Scriptures; that the history of the Hebrew seeking of a relationship with the creator God is a central fact in the context and content of the witness to Jesus as savior the NT proclaims and that the Spirit chose inspired parable tellers; I don't believe I either damage the witness or deny the spiritual reading.

What do you think?